In Canada, Some Doctors Refuse to Do Paps

Pamela Pizarro

Think that religious policing only applies to abortion and contraceptives? Doctors in Canada are now refusing to perform pap smears on young women, citing "religious beliefs."

While attending a recent event honoring the twentieth anniversary of the all-important Morgentaler decision here in Canada, I came upon some disturbing news: doctors in Canada are denying pap smears to women citing religious objections. You read it right: doctors are using their personal morality to further restrict a women’s right to equal health care. I came across this fact in an essay written by Peggy Cooke, the recent winner of Canadians for Choice’s essay submission contest that answered the question “Why is a pro-choice Canada so important?”

In her essay detailing her experience as an abortion clinic patient escort, she writes, “I have two close friends whose doctors will not even give them pap tests because it goes against the doctor’s religious beliefs.” Peggy lives in New Brunswick, one of the most repressive provinces in terms of reproductive policy. The provincial government continues to violate the Canada Health Act, by requiring women to seek approval from a doctor and a gynecologist in order to access publicly funded abortions. Abortions done at the private Morgentaler clinic are not funded.

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I contacted Peggy to learn more about what was going on with the doctors refusing to perform pap smears and she responded by saying that in one case it is actually the doctor's receptionist who won't allow her young unmarried friend to make an appointment for a pap smear saying that she is too young and doesn't need one (she was 19 at the time of the incident). The second instance deals with a couple who are doctors, who run a practice together. Known for their religious and anti-choice beliefs, these doctors will not prescribe contraception. The doctor who refused to perform the pap smear works in the same practice.

So when did a test that is used to screen for disease and cancer suddenly become a procedure which doctors can “object” to do? Am I naïve in thinking that pap smears are a medically necessary part of a women’s yearly physical? I wonder if the same doctors refuse men prostate exams on religious grounds, or does morality only apply to women?

To look for answers, I turned to Patricia LaRue, Executive Director at Canadians for Choice, to see what she could tell me if doctors have the right to refuse ANY procedure that they see as going against their religion. She reminded me that doctors have a "conscience clause," allowing them to refuse prescriptions for birth control, abortion, and now pap smears. The conscience clause is put in place by the Canadian Medical Association so that physicians are not forced to act in any way that goes against their personal beliefs.

However, doctors are also bound by a Code of Ethics to "inform your patient when your personal values would influence the recommendation or practice of any medical procedure that the patient needs or wants." In New Brunswick, the doctor shortage means that young unmarried women simply cannot find a doctor who would give them the services that they request, because there are no other doctors to choose from.

Legally, doctors who use the conscience clause are required to give a referral to a doctor that will perform the procedure that they themselves refuse to do. In real life, however, this seldom transpires. Many doctors feel a "conscientious objection" not only to the procedure but to the referral, and do not refer, claiming they can not in good conscience refer a patient for a procedure that they object to. Many women never report these doctors because they are already in a vulnerable position and fear the stigma attached to reporting doctors for refusing sexual and reproductive health procedures.

So it seems that religious objections and morality policing have moved beyond the realm of abortion and contraception, and have moved into regulating the kind of tests that women can access that may in fact save her from cancer. In Canada we pride ourselves on "universal healthcare," but to access that health care, it seems that you must fit into your doctor's classification of the "normal."

For more information on pap smears visit this page.


In my last post, I wrote about the website, an anti-choice site "marking the twentieth anniversary of legal abortion in Canada" and asking whether abortion provision in Canada has "gone too far." It seems that this group has been targeting youth by creating an “event” on facebook to discuss the twentieth anniversary of the legalization of abortion in Canada. It came to my attention when my youngest sister, who is 16, virtually attended this event. When I went on the page dedicated to the event I found a very slick anti-choice group dedicated to spreading the myths surrounding abortion. The sad part of this group is that they do not allow for postings on their “wall,” or else I would have posted some information to dispel the myths. This is the same group that claims that “In Canada women can have 9-month abortions.” When I asked my sister about it she answered that she didn’t read in-depth the invitation that was sent to her about the group, but that because it talked about the anniversary of the legalization of abortion, and there was no blatant anti-choice propaganda on the invitation, she joined. It makes me wonder how many other youth joined the group not knowing the truth, and read the lies on this posted on this site.

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